THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
1919 – 1989
Brigid O’Farrell honors Catherine Conroy – Labor & The Women’s Movement – VFA St. Louis, MO 2014
I didn’t have the honor of meeting Catherine Conroy, but I did do a lot of work with AT&T in their implementation of their affirmative action program. I can testify firsthand that Catherine helped to rock a very big boat. American Telephone and Telegraph [was] not known always affectionately as Ma Bell.
For Catherine, born [circa] 1920 and raised in Milwaukee during the Great Depression, the telephone company was a good place to work, especially if you were a girl. But she resented the rigid rules and the bullying behavior of managers almost from day one. She joined the Communication Workers of America and in 1947 she went out on a six-week strike with two hundred and thirty thousand women across the country.
She became a picket captain, then a steward, business manager and secretary treasurer of the Wisconsin Division. She was soon elected president of Local fifty-five hundred and became one of the few women on the CWA staff representatives. She later became the first woman elected to the Wisconsin AFL CIO. She was a born leader. In ’64, she…joined the State Commission on the Status of Women and she and Kay Clarenbach went to Washington to the national meetings.
I just particularly love her voice describing that meeting when she said that when the resolution for more government action was denied that she and Kay – “Well we got mad. There were 26 of us at two tables passing notes around creating NOW. And right at this luncheon in front of all these people I know that Mary Keyserling, head of the Women’s Bureau wondered what the hell was going on down there because we were running around.”
Catherine saw organization as a problem from the beginning. And she said, “I’m a real fan of Betty’s. She has good vision, good sense, writing and speaking and having visions of the future, analyzing problems is her thing. She does it very well. She’s a terrible organization person.” Catherine worked on the Bylaws Committee, never one of the most popular and wanted to have a delegate system so that the grassroots members of NOW would be represented.
She basically was bringing in a lot of union structure to this organization. But she saw the division between the visionaries and the writers and people like herself who wanted to make things work smoothly. She saw those divisions and she was concerned about those who called themselves militant feminists. (“I think the majority of NOW people are more conservative than to want to be labeled as radical feminists.”)
She left the NOW board and started the Chicago chapter, adding on to what I said earlier. She said, “We just had to knock people on the heads to join unions, but now we couldn’t keep them away.” She moved back to Milwaukee in seventy-five and was dealing with all of the technological change in the industry. Operator jobs were disappearing, and AT&T’s affirmative action program was just beginning.
Similar to the steel industry, just as women were starting to move into the higher paying jobs, the industries – both for outsourcing and technological reasons – began their rapid and rather thorough descent. But Catherine thought much of what was going on in the women’s movement would help union women. They needed their own organization. She got very reluctant support from the Communication Workers of America. But she got it and she went to the founding convention.
And again, her own words I think are so powerful. “That convention made me think that I had been reborn and could see the beginnings of a CIO because everybody was so full of idealism and enthusiasm. I think probably everybody realized the rough road was still ahead. The real problem is to coordinate these things, translate them into union action.”
She cautioned that change was going to come slowly. She said that, “Everybody is trying to do something for CLUW around the edges of all the other things that they’re into. This is a whole different kind of movement. Be patient, help, don’t criticize.” Words we could all live by.
Catherine was also a wonderful mentor to younger women. I spoke with Annie Crump, Yvette Herrera and Hetty Schofield. All women in the Communication Workers Union [who said] that Catherine had touched their lives. Annie was one of the CWA women in Milwaukee and she had very much hoped to be here today. She talked lovingly about how Catherine had gently guided her through her work in the phone company and the union, helped her with her first strike, helped her run for office and move up in the union. She talked of all the fun they had and the good work they did in the CLUW chapter. Annie supported Catherine when she challenged the union on her own promotion.
Catherine died of cancer [circa] 1986 and NOW named her Feminist of the Year. Patsy Fryman, another CWA leader, reflected, “When Catherine was a feminist, back in the early 60s, we all looked at her with a jaundiced eye. Many of us felt that she was sticking her neck out too far by being part of this radical group, the National Organization for Women, and vocally supporting women’s rights – asking questions about why women weren’t getting certain jobs, equal pay for equal work. Nobody was asking those questions but Catherine. She was way ahead of her time. Turned out she was completely right. And now we’re all feminists.
Kay Clarenbach who became her very, very dear friend wrote as part of her memorial, “Her enormous contribution, which has national implications, has been bringing together women and the labor movement and educating people that their goals are the same. A more humane, democratic society – one that’s fair to everybody.” When asked about today’s situation, Annie Crump said that Catherine often talked about the pendulum swinging too far and then swinging back. The pendulum today has swung too far, said Annie, and Catherine would tell you, “It will swing back.” Let us hope.